Taking a Principled Stand

The feast of SS John Fisher and Thomas More always invites some reflection on the meaning of conscience and the cost of following it. Too often that ends in a more or less superficial recognition that they paid with their lives for opposing the king’s will and that was a Good Thing because they were on the side of truth and right. I happen to believe that they were on the side of truth and right, but even a little knowledge of Tudor history will soon show how complex was ‘the king’s matter’ (Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon) and the changes in relations between Church and State signified by Henry’s adoption of the title Supreme Head of the Church of England. We look at the result and forget the process that led to it. Had I lived in those days, for example, I am quite sure I would have agonised as much as Fisher and More about the right thing to do and only gradually come to see the course I should follow. There the similarity ends, for I would never have had the courage to endure what they endured: the loneliness, the disgrace, imprisonment and execution.

Note I put loneliness and disgrace ahead of the sufferings Fisher and More experienced in the Tower and in the manner of their death. I think we often forget that taking a principled stand about something rarely looks principled at the time. It is frequently mocked by others, attributed to selfishness or stupidity, even reviled as being unpatriotic or disloyal. One’s closest family or friends fail to understand and urge another, safer course. Worst of all, one is not absolutely sure oneself. More’s letters from the Tower show his growing awareness that no compromise would be possible, but he clearly felt the force of the objections voiced by his family. For Fisher, it was an even lonelier process, although he was much more direct than More, declaring early on that he was prepared to die, like John the Baptist, in defence of the marriage bond between Henry and Katherine. Not all the bishops agreed with him by any means, and his closest living relative, his sister Elizabeth, a nun, was unable to visit him. To the very end he was not allowed the ministrations of a priest, and when his body was was buried (his head was thrown in the Thames), not a single funeral prayer was said. One can only speculate what went through his mind and wonder at his ability to hold firm.

Today there are many who experience in their own way the cost of being true to their conscience. They are not necessarily universally admired. There may even be some we ourselves condemn because we do not know all the facts or make our judgements on hearsay and what we find on Social Media. That is a sobering thought. Sobering, too, is the realisation that we may be called upon to make a stand one day. It may be in the first flush of youth, when everything seems so promising; in mature middle age, when the promise is largely fulfilled, all looks glorious and the cost unbearable; or when we are old and frail and it would be much easier just to give way and seek some means of escape. We cannot tell, we can only trust that grace will be given when we need. St Thomas More assured his daughter that he was ‘not the stuff of which martyrs are made’. We know he was. Who knows what we are capable of but the Lord?

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Praying for Our Fellow Christians

Yesterday evening, as on many previous occasions, we held a short prayer vigil here in the monastery for persecuted Christians in the Near and Middle East, especially those in the grip of IS. For once I remembered to mention the vigil on Social Media, and it was heartwarming to see how many responded and joined in ‘virtually’. Inevitably, one or two people wanted to widen the terms of reference, not just Christians but also . . . . Anyone who follows the daily prayer intentions on our Facebook page will know that we never take an exclusive view of prayer — the fact that we don’t mention someone or something doesn’t mean we’re not praying for them — but given that today’s gospel, Matthew 5. 43–48, addresses the subject of loving our enemies, you may wonder why we insist that our vigil was, quite specifically, for our persecuted brethren.

It’s easy to forget that as Christians we are the original corporate person, as it were. We are one in Christ, and as St Paul famously reminds us in his analogy of the body, what affects one affects all. We have a duty of care towards one another. The first way in which we express that is through our union of prayer. Nothing can substitute for that. It is from our strength and unity as a Christian community that our action proceeds, and unity cannot exist without being grounded in prayer. Everything we read about the outrages perpetrated by IS reminds us that Christians face a persecution as evil as any in history. Some will argue that the numbers involved are fewer than were exterminated by the Nazis or that the atrocities reported by the media are exaggerated. Personally, I find it rather repugnant to play any kind of numbers game. The fact is that people are suffering because they acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and God. They are being driven from their homes, enslaved, killed. We pray for them and ask their prayers for us, mindful that they show us what it means to be a disciple. Those Coptic Christians who died in Libya calling on the name of Jesus must surely be an encouragement to us all. Last night we asked the Lord to have mercy, but we also gave thanks for the witness of his followers who were ‘faithful unto death’ and showed us what it means to love our enemies:

Coptic Christians martyred in Libya

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Bearing Witness

The first few days of June are shot through with red, the colour of blood. Already this week we have celebrated the martyrdom of SS Marcellinus and Peter and SS Charles Lwanga and Companions, the martyrs of Uganda. Tomorrow we celebrate the martyrdom of St Boniface, the apostle of Germany; and today we mark another kind of bearing witness, that of the Tiananmen Square protestors of twenty-five years ago.

If I were at home, I would have searched out what is for me the most evocative image of Tiananmen: a solitary figure, clad in black trousers and white shirt, advancing unarmed towards a line of tanks. The courage and futility of that act remind me of many similar acts in the past. Times, situations, can make the most ordinary person extraordinary. We may think of ourselves as constitutionally cowardly, unlikely ever to stand up to evil, however much we might want to. But grace can surprise us all. It was another martyr* who remarked to his daughter that he was ‘not the stuff of which martyrs are made,’ and his martyrdom, too, had a political consequence as well as a religious one.

I’m not claiming that the people who died in Tiananmen and after were martyrs as the Church understands martyrs, rather that they bore witness to human idealism and hope. China has changed much in the past twenty-five years, but the freedoms for which the protestors hoped are still as elusive as ever. Corruption continues to bedevil local government. The persecution of minorities has not abated. Today as we pray for China, let’s ask the prayers of the Martyrs, who understand, as we who have not been tried perhaps cannot, both the cost of bearing witness and its importance.

*St Thomas More

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St Cecilia’s Day 2013

St Cecilia’s Day usually leads to reflections on music and musicians. Indeed, on a former occasion, I tagged onto the feast a few thoughts about music and community life:

I think it’s no accident that the concept of ‘heavenly harmony’ and the ‘music of the spheres’ runs so deeply through Western culture and civilization. For instance, I often use the image of playing a string quartet to describe the dynamic of community living. Each brings to the whole an individual talent, but through intense listening to each other, periods of silence as well as playing, something greater and more beautiful is produced than one alone could achieve.

So today, when we thank God for the joy and beauty that music and musicians bring to our lives and to the liturgy of the Church, we might also spend a few moments thinking about something less abstract: the way in which we ourselves contribute to the music of the universe. We may be only ‘average choir fodder’ but we each have something worth giving. (See post for this day 2011).

I stand by every word, but from a liturgical point of view, St Cecilia is celebrated chiefly for her virginity and her martyrdom. Neither is a particularly popular concept, but Christianity has never been about popularity, so perhaps we should spend a moment or two thinking about them and try to ignore the cheapening of words and ideas that marks Western culture today.

For a Christian, martyrdom is bearing the ultimate witness to Christ, giving one’s life-blood. To be a martyr, one mustn’t court death but must accept it as the price of fidelity. The grace of martyrdom isn’t one we can presume upon. It is a harsh grace, unpalatable, contradictory, and none of us knows whether we would have the courage to accept it, should the moment ever come. Cecilia was young in years but old in virtue when she died. We, by contrast, may be old in years and still infants in virtue, but it is never too late to try to cultivate a habit of fidelity, of readiness. That is to accept the seriousness of our faith and its implications for both life and death.

Virginity is another of those things many Christians are uncomfortable with. We are much readier to talk about marriage and family, yet the Church has always honoured virginity freely chosen out of love for God. St Augustine wisely remarks that ‘the whole Church is virginal by virtue of the integrity of her faith, hope and love’ while the beautiful Prayer of Consecration attributed to St Leo carefully insists that ‘the dignity of marriage is not lessened’ even as it becomes lyrical in its enunciation of the theology of virginity. One of the impoverishments of the Church today — and perhaps of society, too — is that the theology of virginity, so clearly linked to our understanding of the nature of the Church, has been almost totally eclipsed by our contemporary obsession with sex.

On St Cecilia’s Day, let’s listen to some good music; give thanks for the beauty of sound and silence; pray for the deaf, for whom music is an abstract concept, never to be enjoyed as we who have hearing can enjoy it; and spend a few moments thinking about the paradox that death is a gateway into life, and virginity fruitful in ways most never dream.

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St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)

It is strange how an apparently trivial image can impress itself on the brain to the exclusion of others. This morning at Vigils I kept coming back to an incident in the life of St Teresa Benedicta which we know of only by hearsay. The train which carried her to Auschwitz stopped at Breslau, the town where she had grown up, and the gate of one of the trucks was opened for some reason. One of the railwaymen reported that a woman dressed as a nun stood in the open doorway and looked out over the city, murmuring that she would never see it again. It is a scene easy to imagine. The stifling August afternoon; the smell of coal and human sweat; the despair in the trucks; men going about their ordinary tasks outside. It reminds us that heroic sanctity doesn’t look particularly heroic to onlookers: it is ordinary, drab, even dull. It is only later that we see its significance, how it illumines and redeems the evil it confronts.

I have written about St Teresa Benedicta before, both in iBenedictines and its predecessor, Colophon, (e.g. see here), but this morning it is that image of the saint gazing at Breslau which stays with me. She was brave and she was brilliant, but instead of the anger we might have expected, there was a calm acceptance of the death she was to undergo. Her last words to her sister Rosa were allegedly, ‘Come, let us die for our people.’ She is one of the few people who have managed to live up to her name, ‘of the Cross’; and like the Saviour who hung there for us,  she ‘was never wroth’. There is a lesson there for all of us.

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Christianity’s First Woman Writer?

Today is the feast of SS Perpetua and Felicity, who were martyred at Carthage on 7 March 203. Much of the account of their martyrdom (strictly speaking a Passio) is written in the first person by Perpetua herself and therefore has a claim to being the earliest known text by a Christian woman. There are two versions, in Latin and Greek, with a little working over by our old friend Tertullian, which you can read here and a modernized version of Walter Shewring’s translation here.

Historians and hagiographers love these texts because they contain many puzzles, but I think the ‘ordinary Christian’ can get a great deal from them because they plunge us straight into the world of the third century with the dramatic intensity of a good thriller or whodunnit. Put simply, they are the record of profound faith and heroic courage. They remind us that family and friends are often the last people to understand why we believe or the importance of faith to us; that what we sometimes think of as ‘persecution’ in the west is nothing of the sort; and that often it is those whom we least regard who show the most sterling qualities.

Cold and wet as it is here today, I intend to spend a few minutes under the broiling heat of a Carthaginian sky nearly two thousand years ago. The noise of the crowd, the smell of sweat and blood, recall another and greater Passion. Christianity’s first woman writer makes incomparable Lenten reading.

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The Treasures of the Church

St Lawrence, one of the seven deacons of Rome martyred during the persecution of Valerian and whose feast we keep today, was a very modern kind of churchman. When asked for the treasures of the Church, he pointed to the poor. I was reminded of this yesterday when accosted by a fellow shopper in Sainsbury’s. Inevitably, the conversation turned to how rich the Catholic Church is (it’s either that or paedophilia these days) and how surprised she was that we are struggling to afford more permanent premises. It is perfectly true that some parts of the Church are very rich in material terms; it is also true that if one looks for examples of excess and irresponsibility, one will find them (one will not have to search very hard: a misplaced sense of entitlement bedevils certain areas); but the real wealth of the Church is always the People of God, among whom the poor hold  a very special place. St Lawrence was absolutely right about that.

Unfortunately, such sentiments can be a sop to the rich, reassuring us that we honour (and occasionally help) the poor in ways God would approve. The poor are special. We know that, we say that. Bully for us. We are the do-gooders; the poor are the done-to; and God is tremendously pleased with us for our generosity and kindness. It is, of course, the other way round. We who share material resources with the less fortunate are the people who receive a blessing from the poor. It is they who are the givers, we who are the receivers. That can make us uncomfortable, because we all like to believe that we are a little nobler than we actually are. I fear there can be no grounds for complacency, still less for pride. The treasures of the Church are indeed the poor, and comparatively few living in the west can count themselves among them.

Every evening at Vespers the Church sings Esurientes implevit bonis; et divites dimissit inanes ‘He has filled the hungry with good things, sent the rich away empty.’ They are words worth pondering. I don’t think any of us will lie on our death-beds fretting that we didn’t acquire more money, but we may be troubled about how we spent it.

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Becket and Conscience

St Thomas Becket
St Thomas Becket

The feast of St Thomas Becket always takes me back to Cambridge days and the difficulty of making up my mind about Becket. I always wanted to see him as the doughty champion of the Church, clear-eyed in his acceptance of the consequences of clashing with the king. But I was enough of a historian to worry that many of his contemporaries were less convinced. Gilbert Foliot, for example, did not see Becket as a hero; and Foliot was a man of great integrity. I finally decided that I could accept Becket’s holiness without necessarily thinking him right in all his judgements (it is significant that no one, not even his worst enemies, ever accused Becket of unchastity which, at that time, would have scuppered any claim to sanctity, but the cause for which he died was quickly superseded by a compromise).

My student dilemma is one we are regularly faced with in the secular sphere. Recent events in Russia leave one “wondering” about the justice system there. What is happening in the Ivory Coast has a definite whiff of sulphur about it; and as for what we know of Afghanistan, who could say, hand on heart, that the western forces have made the situation there any better, despite the huge sacrifice of people and resources on every side?

All of us have to make decisions based on imperfect and often contradictory evidence. We must do the best we can. Sometimes doing the best we can may lead to martyrdom of one kind or another. More often it means being misunderstood or misprized, usually by those whose opinion we most value. Let us not undervalue the courage and persistence that requires. The daily death to self, the trying to do the right thing, makes the whole of life a martyrdom, a witness for Christ.

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